By James J. Besemer
While vacationing in Italy this summer I had the privilege to spend an afternoon browsing through the Beretta firearms museum. The museum is located in Gardone Val Trompia, 12 miles north of the industrial city of Brescia, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Brescia is located just off the A4 Autostrada, about 60 Km west of Milan. The museum is housed in the “Big Armory,” a large castle-like building built in the late 1880’s by Cavaliere Giuseppe Beretta. In addition to housing the museum, the Big Armory houses the studio of Lavoro Pietro Beretta, who ran the company for the first half of this century. It also houses executive offices and serves as a warehouse for the much larger and modern Fabbrica d’Armi Beretta, just up the street.
After a brief delay at reception (since we were unexpected and the receptionist spoke no English), a gentleman speaking perfect English appeared to welcome us and escort us to the museum. He apologized that, due to a previously scheduled meeting, he’d be unable to give us a personal tour. Out of his pocket he pulled a large ring of old, well worn keys and he used one of them to open the doors to the museum. Inside was a dazzling presentation of several hundred years of small arms development. Gesturing to the left and right walls, respectively, he said, “field guns are over there and ‘other’ guns are over there. Older guns are towards the back, newer guns are towards the front, and handguns are in the center tables. Enjoy!” Then he left us to our own devices.
I naturally expected the museum to chronicle Beretta products, including many ancient firearms, and this was certainly the case. However, I was pleased to discover that the museum also included significant firearms from other manufacturers. I was particularly pleased to note that the works of John Browning were given the ample recognition they deserved. This was a gun lover’s collection, and included samples of just about every significant small arm developed through the WWII era. There were examples of post-WWII guns but they were field guns, familiar Beretta handguns, or more modern Beretta assault weapons – no modern designs not made by Beretta. Prominent modern weapons like the M16 and anything by H&K were conspicuously absent.
Many of the field guns featured exquisite engravings and carvings and probably exemplify Beretta’s long-standing tradition of top quality craftsmanship. Among the field guns, I found myself drawn towards some of the more unusual examples: a strange breech-loaded single shot shotgun, some open hammer quad-barreled shotguns, and some unusually large or small gauge guns. But probably my favorite was to see that John Browning’s lever action 12 gauge had earned a place in this exhibit, one of the few non-Beretta field guns represented.
I wasn’t surprised to see that antique guns were well represented, comprising about one third of the overall collection. There were many flintlocks, a few wheel locks and matchlocks, plus a few guns with even stranger firing mechanisms. There were a few handguns that fired projectiles about the size of a golf ball. I bet they would be a handful to shoot. The pride of the collection, perhaps, was a gun carried by General Giuseppe Garibaldi during the conquest of Naples. Garibaldi figures prominently in the 19th century unification of Italy.
Personally, I was drawn to the ‘other’ guns – the more modern military weapons. It was amazing to see several hundred years of small arms history condensed to a single wall in an exhibit. The older weapons were interesting more for novelties, such as the appearance (in this exhibit anyway) of the first grenade launcher or of early machineguns. A tiny, Chipmunk-sized .22LR carbine, with what appeared to be about a 20 round magazine and (of all things) a fixed bayonet was particularly amusing. There was a 1915 era 9mm Villar Perosa in perfect condition, with it’s distinctive twin barrels and corresponding top mounted magazines. However, the most impressive part of this section was the excellent tribute to WWII-era weapons. I have never before seen so many important patterns in one place: M1 Garand, M3 Greasegun, Sten, PPSH, MP44, MP40, several Thompsons, right up through (Beretta made) M14s.
Curiously, the focus of the collection narrows considerably after World War II. All of the more recent military guns are limited to ones made by Beretta. AK-47s and M16s are conspicuous in their absence.
Pistols were displayed in waist high cabinets with glass tops and 4 or 5 layers of locked drawers underneath. So the guns exhibited on top are just a fraction of the total collection.
Closest to the entrance there were two flat tables containing an assortment of Beretta handguns. Modern model 92 or 96 guns in various finishes took up about a third of the first table. A few were gold-plated or had gold appointments. A little more interesting were a series of pocket pistols, showing the evolution of the model 21 series back over time. Most interesting of all was a full-auto model 57 (‘Helwan’ style), featuring a contoured horizontal fore-grip and a shoulder stock. Next to it was a model 93R.
The non-Beretta pistols were much more interesting. One table was dedicated entirely to Lugers. In addition to many examples of the classic P08 handgun, there were some artillery-style variants both with and without shoulder stocks. However, the centerpiece of this table was a Borchardt Pistol – the immediate predecessor of Mr. Luger’s famous design.
The next table was full of Broomhandle Mausers. Again, there was an assortment of regular pistols and some with shoulder stocks. But the most unique piece was a Mauser carbine. Another table had a random collection of assorted WWII era handguns, one or more each: P38, Japanese Nambu, Radom, plus a number of strange handguns I didn’t recognize.
I was pleased to see that the last two tables were tributes to John Browning’s handguns. One table was almost entirely Browning High Powers. Again the collection presented an enviable assortment of unique configurations. The other table contained a significant number of 1911-pattern guns, along with a representative assortment of other Browning designs.
At first I was struck by the conspicuous absence of any crew-served guns or larger artillery. Then I noticed towards the far end of the main room there were a couple of cannon on display. One appeared to be muzzle loaded (at least I never figured out how to open the breach). The other was clearly breach loaded but I was surprised by the conspicuous label which said it was “Spingarda Beretta / CAL.32 MOD.27”. I thought what is this, some kind of a joke? The muzzle looks around 30mm. I opened the breach and was stunned to see what looked like a tiny .32 cal opening. Then I realized I was looking at the base of a 32mm case with the primer punched out. When I fully ejected the shell, it was about 20cm long. It turns out that this gun was a mainstay of the Beretta product line at one time.
The far end of the main room had doors leading to other rooms. Turns out they were hiding the more aggressive weapons of war in these back rooms. One room was small, almost a closet, but it had a single gun rack with a variety of famous machineguns. Lighting was poor and I did not recognize all the models but there were at least two MG42s, a Chaucat and a Bren. These guns were tagged like the rest of the collection but it looked like they were the bastard stepchildren. Also, incongruously, about one third of the rack was filled with old swords.
The other room was much more interesting. The walls were covered with bookshelves filled with gun patterns and trophies the company won in various competitions. More interesting was the assortment of heavier artillery. There was the cutest little 5” mortar. Nearby there was an older, muzzle loaded cannon, turquoise with age. There was a Maxim and a couple belt-feds I didn’t recognize but it was gratifying to see John Browning well represented in this collection too: a potato digger and a 1919A1. In the far corner was a 3” cannon that was a popular product at one time. Most interesting perhaps was an unusual dual-barreled machine gun. It was somewhat like the Villar Perosa only somewhat larger. What I could make out from the label was “Contro Aerei… / Gassa Quota / Mod. 30 / Cal. 6.6mm / Per La R. Marina.” My Italian is terrible but I’m getting some kind of anti aircraft gun for riverboats. “Gassa Quota” suggests gas operated, but the gun looks like a blowback design.
Some time earlier we had heard the factory whistle blow and heard most of the employees leaving for the day. We half expected to get kicked out but nobody interrupted us so we didn’t leave until we had had our fill. As we left, I noticed our original escort had left the keys in the door, so I locked up and reluctantly turned the keys over to an older executive who had been waiting patiently for us.
We thought the tour was over but he ushered us onto the next phase of the tour. This was a product display room. Mostly it exhibited Beretta-branded clothing, bags, and other accessories. One wall did have guns on display but they were mostly exotic shotguns. Only thing that was particularly interesting was seeing for the first time their Beretta 98 handgun. This is a model 92-pattern gun in caliber 9×21 along with some minor cosmetic improvements. I’d love to have one but it may never be imported to the US.
Even this wasn’t the end of the tour. We were escorted to one last section, exhibiting some of Beretta’s forays into non-firearms markets. Most prominently was the Beretta automobile. Vaguely resembling a cross between a Fiat and an old Volvo, the company experimented with the auto industry for about three years. There also are some motorcycles the company made for a while. There are a lot of lakes in this part of Italy and I get the impression that some of the Beretta family were enthusiastic about boating. For a while the company made a little water skiff. This was a motorized water scooter about the size of an inner tube. By far one of the most interesting things in this section was a rowboat, mounted with one of those “Spingarda” 32mm cannon. It was about twenty-five feet long and seated a crew of three rowers plus a gun operator. The gun operator controlled the gun’s elevation. The rowers had oars for getting around but they also had cranks to control left and right propellers for fine-tuning the direction. I can see one of the Beretta owners out on one of the lakes, shooting at targets on the alpine hills. It’s good to be the boss.
From their web page I was led to believe this was an ordinary firearms museum open to the public. Upon arrival it was clear that this is not quite the case. Though the company was most gracious at receiving us without an appointment, it was clear that they, in fact, receive hardly any visitors, being so far from any of the normal tourist stops. My friend and I had the entire museum to ourselves for the several hours we chose to stay. But if I had it to do over again, I’d phone ahead and make an appointment. Maybe then we could get them to open some of the cases so we could take some better photographs.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N6 (March 2001)|